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Editor’s Note: This is the sixth installment of The Decoder, a column that’s part of the Living With Data series exploring how our online data is tracked, collected and used. Do you have questions about how your personal data is being used? Curious to learn more about your daily encounters with algorithms? Email the Decoder at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit your question via the form here. Screen shots and links are helpful clues!
I was on crutches for a while in September, and I relied on the Uber ride-sharing service to get from point A to point B.
I wasn’t the most ideal customer. Sometimes it took me a while to get to the curb to meet the driver. One time the driver couldn’t pull up to my house because my street had been blocked because of construction. And I took a lot of short trips when I normally would have walked to spots where public transport doesn’t go.
A Daily Dot reporter asked drivers on the Uber forums how passengers could get better ratings, and the most common suggestion was “Don’t make me wait.” For disabled or elderly riders, that might be asking a lot.
Uber was instrumental while my mobility was impaired. But I started worrying how all those annoyances might affect my Uber passenger rating. How could I find out my rating? And how might my score affect my ability to get rides in the future?
It’s no secret that Uber drivers have ratings. In fact, they live and die by their average, calculated from their last 500 rides. There are entire forums and Reddit channels devoted to speculation about how to make sure passengers rate them well.
Driver ratings are so competitive because they’re based on a moving target. To remain in good standing, drivers have to be above average in their city and class (for example, UberX or Uber Black). A 4.7 rating in a city where 4.8 is the average could put a driver at risk of being deactivated in the system.
Uber ratings cut out the bad apples in this peer economy. Uber drivers pay close attention to their ratings every time they drive. But as Uber passengers, we don’t get to see our ratings, so we don’t get to see where we stand in this market. If passenger ratings are supposed to be some market signal — and an incentive to customers be better customers — then why are they secret? And how do Uber drivers use them?
Passenger ratings exposed
This summer, a report published on Medium detailed an oversight in Uber’s mobile website that exposed passenger ratings. The oversight has since been patched. Though many were familiar with the system’s driver ratings, for some the idea that Uber drivers silently rated passengers was new.
According to Uber, passenger ratings protect the drivers offering their cars and their services. Ratings are meant to protect drivers from “aggressive, violent or disrespectful riders.” And they give drivers a chance to report on passengers who might be drunk and disorderly or just plain rude.
I asked one Uber driver how he rates his riders, and he gives them all five stars unless they throw up in his car. That means for most passengers, their Uber rating hovers somewhere close to 5.
Before the oversight was patched, people expressed a range of reactions after discovering their rating:
My Uber passenger rating is 4.9⭐️ – this is my new pickup line.
That might not work in a bar, but it will for the ride home.
Others shared their grievances. Twitter user @hkanji complained that it took him longer to get an Uber once his score slipped to 4.6 from 4.8.
If drivers have clear guidelines and transparency on what constitutes a good rating, what’s the equivalent for passengers? What is the cutoff for drivers not to pick me up? Uber won’t deactivate me from the system as it does drivers, so are the passenger ratings completely subjective signals in the hands of the driver?
Drivers admit they refer to passenger ratings to decide to pick up fares that the app pushes to them. Uber encourages drivers to keep their fare acceptance rate up because that means better service for customers, which is certainly in the company’s interest. But as long as drivers’ percentages even out, they can pass on riders who don’t fit their criteria. Some Uber driver forum contributors suggest saying they don’t accept anyone in the low 4s or below.
How to find your rating
The easiest way to find out your Uber passenger rating is to submit a support request and ask for your passenger rating. You can also ask your driver the next time you get an Uber ride, but that puts your driver on the spot.
To submit a support request and also nudge Uber to make this information easier to get, try something like this:
I would like to request my passenger rating. I would also like to request that Uber expose passenger ratings to Uber riders in the app and in our profiles online.
I submitted and got a response within a few minutes: “Thanks for reaching out. Your last driver gave you a 5-star rating. Your average rating for all the trips, on the other hand, is 4.7.”
So, 4.7. But what does that mean? What’s the Boston average passenger rating? And where do I fall on that average? I don’t get a weekly report like the one Uber drivers get.
When I look at my Uber profile, I can see how I rated each driver I rode with. When I got in touch with Uber, I asked for my individual ratings so I could see something like a histogram of the ratings I got, but Uber wouldn’t share that much detail; it says that is to protect the privacy of the individual drivers, just as drivers cannot see their individual ratings from passengers. So I’ll never know if I got lower ratings because I was on crutches or because I was particularly chatty with a friend on the way home.
If the default for a good Uber experience is a five — for passengers rating drivers and vice versa — Uber ought to be more explicit about that. Or it might do better with an eBay-like positive, neutral, negative scale that simply asks, "Would you do business with this person again?" For now, Uber is leaving it up to the market to develop a rating norm, which hovers around a very high average.
But five-point scale doesn’t reflect how a rider is bad. Drivers can rate people on the basis of anything from minor annoyances like perfume or body odor to serious biases, including race, gender and disability. For an infrequent Uber user, a low score might signal a bad night out or a red flag for a disability.
If peer trust is fundamental to the model of ride sharing, why doesn’t Uber share passenger ratings with its users? Wouldn’t that encourage better behavior as riders and acknowledge the importance of the two-way rating system? Why does this asymmetric view persist?
In part, I think, it has to do with Uber’s view of the world, a company that plays around with the God view of its real-time system. It believes in perfect markets and purports that its surge-pricing algorithms are neutral because they reflect and respond to demand.
But the design of algorithms is never neutral. And it’s not neutral to collect a passenger rating and display it to only one party in the transaction. As implemented here, a passenger rating is a signal about you that creates an asymmetric imbalance that benefits the driver and not the rider.
Of course, Uber already privileges populations equipped with smartphones and credit cards. And Uber is just fine with that; it reflects the company’s founding spirit of being able to call up a car at the touch of a button to impress your friends on a Saturday night out. That philosophy has shaped the company, the design assumptions of its product, even its competitive tactics as Uber edges out other ride-sharing companies in the market. In founder Travis Kalanick’s words, it’s “how Uber rolls.”
For the time being, that asymmetry leads to anxious idle thinking, with one user tweeting, “Whenever uber takes a long time to select a driver i fear that my passenger rating has collapsed :(”
Whenever uber takes a long time to select a driver i fear that my passenger rating has collapsed :(
What’s your Uber passenger rating? Share with @smwat and #TheDecoder on Twitter. Do you have questions about how your personal data is being used? Curious to learn more about your daily encounters with algorithms? Email the Decoder at email@example.com or submit your question via the form here. Screen shots and links are helpful clues!